Who I am
I have been fascinated by the natural world all my life and growing up on a farm in south-western UK provided me with a seemingly limitless supply of weird and wonderful creatures to discover. I always knew that I wanted to make studying animals my career, but it was only when I was given a tropical fish tank at the age of 11 that my passion for the underwater world began. From that moment forward I would say ‘I want to study fish!’ when asked what I planned to do when I grew up. True to my word, I progressed through school and college with this in mind and in 2002 graduated from the University of Plymouth with a degree in marine biology and coastal ecology.
University opened my mind to the rest of the world and I was hungry to explore as much of it as I could. Having visited and dived in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, I realised that I wanted to work in one of these tropical destinations, and when a job for a marine biologist in the Maldives came up in 2003 I knew it was for me.
Where I work
A marine biologist’s paradise, the Maldives has the world’s largest-known population of reef manta rays Manta alfredi. It was here that I had my first underwater encounter with any manta ray, and I was enthralled by these amazingly graceful and inquisitive creatures. Since then I’ve been driven by a desire to learn as much as possible about them.
In 2005 I founded the Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP), which is now one of the longest-running manta ray research and conservation initiatives in the world. Highly regarded within the scientific community as a non-profit and independent organisation, it is also the founding project of the Manta Trust. The MMRP was formed with a view to collecting robust and long-term data records on manta rays throughout the Maldivian archipelago to further their conservation. The information gathered relates not only to the mantas encountered, but also to environmental and climatic factors, human interactions and tourism, all of which influence the manta ray population.
What I do
Since beginning our research we have identified more than 3,700 individual manta rays from over 30,000 photo-ID sightings. We can do this because each individual has its own unique pattern of black spots on its predominantly white belly. And since the patterns do not change during the course of a manta’s life, they enable us to track individuals as they are sighted over a period of decades.
Every sighting – whether of a new manta or of one already known to us – is an important piece of a huge jigsaw puzzle, enabling us to better understand the size of a population and its composition, migratory routes and reproductive output, as well as areas of critical habitat. All this information is crucial to developing effective management and conservation strategies for these increasingly vulnerable animals.
Because we have been collecting data over a long period, the population of manta rays in Maldivian waters is one of the most intensively studied manta populations globally. Our long-term research enables us to record and identify key trends and patterns within this population over time. Manta rays are an incredibly important resource for the Maldives, attracting tens of thousands of people to the country each year to dive and snorkel with them and generating millions of US dollars for the economy annually. Being able to improve our understanding of manta rays and pinpoint the reasons for any observed trends in – or threats to – the Maldivian population is crucial for the ongoing management and protection of these animals, and not just in the Maldives but globally too.
The Save Our Seas Foundation funded my work in the Maldives for six years and for the past two years it has supported the Manta Trust’s global mobulid ray conservation project. This project aims to see all species of mobulid ray protected or effectively managed for sustainable or non-consumptive use, ideally by the people closest to them in a way that promotes wider ocean conservation. The foundation’s support and guidance throughout this time has been key to my successes. I hope that through my role on the Save Our Seas Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Panel I have been able to repay some of this support by assisting other manta and mobula scientists and conservationists.